Restrain the Northern Alliance


By S. Frederick Starr

Project Syndicate
October, 2001

Is your enemy's enemy necessarily your friend? Not if that supposed friend is the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban coalition that controls less than 10% of Afghanistan's territory. Despite massive aid from both Russia and Iran, this resistance movement looked on the verge of collapse even before Osama bin Laden's hitmen killed its charismatic field commander, General Massoud days before the terrorist attacks on America. The events of September 11th put the Alliance back in the picture. Now it is preparing to launch its own attack on Kabul, with or without a nod from the US. Its leaders are forming a 2,000-man police force to patrol the Afghan capital if and when the Alliance captures it.

Now that the US and its allies have begun to bomb the Taliban's entrenched positions north of Kabul, the question becomes even more important as to whether or not the US and its allies should welcome a takeover of the old Afghan capital by indigenous Afghan forces hostile to the Taliban. Considering the actual record of the Northern Alliance forces when they as ruled in Kabul, and, more importantly, the symbolic message such a victory would send to the largest and pivotal group in the Afghan population, the Pashtuns, America and its allies should keep their distance.

The Northern Alliance ruled a broad swath of Afghanistan's far north for several years after the Taliban gained control of the rest of the country in 1996. Its Uzbek leader, Rashid Dostum, unleashed on his headquarters city, Mazar-I-Sharif, a wave of craven brutality and human rights abuses that bear comparison with the Taliban's worst activities. The Taliban's cold-blooded massacre of more than a hundred Shiia Afghans followed close on the heels of a similar massacre of Taliban supporters by the Northern Alliance. General Dostum followed these events from the comfort of his new villa, replete with indoor swimming pool.

Like the Taliban, the Northern Alliance has been actively involved in the production and distribution of opium. Unlike the Taliban, however, the Northern Alliance has made no effort to stop the traffic. Delegations sent by the UN and US' drug control agencies both confirmed that the Taliban cut the cultivation of opium poppies by more than half in 1999-2000, and without a penny of international aid for compensatory payments to farmers. Far from doing the same, the Northern Alliance has taken advantage of the resulting shortfalls and rising prices to increase its trafficking.

Like the Taliban, the Northern Alliance has aided and abetted terrorists. One of only three terrorist groups singled out by President Bush in his address to Congress after the New York attacks was the "Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," now renamed the "Islamic Party of Turkistan." In two successive years several thousand armed guerrillas from the IMU crossed from northern Afghanistan via Tajikistan into Kyrgyzstan, Kazakstan, and Uzbekistan to foment insurrection.

While supported actively by Bin Laden, the IMU also gained the cooperation of the Northern Alliance, through whose territory it moved back and forth with impunity. Tajiks in the Northern Alliance welcomed the IMU's targeting of Uzbekistan, and benefited also from the IMU's close involvement with the drug trade. Incidentally, the IMU successfully used $100,000 to bribe Russian troops, which are nominally defending Tajikistan's borders against the IMU.

Perhaps the only thing positive that can be said of this sinister alliance of warlords from Afghanistan's north is that they oppose the Taliban. But even if they were squeaky clean, the biggest problem would remain that they have been funded and armed by the Russians, with help from Iran.

To most Afghans, and especially to the Pashtuns, whether they support or oppose the Taliban, this association is a kiss of death. After all, it was the Russians whose invasion caused the slaughter of 1-1.5 million Afghans between 1979 and 1989.

The seizure of Kabul by the Northern Alliance would reignite all the national passions that brought down the Red Army. Nor would such a backlash be confined to Afghanistan. The sixteen million Pashtuns in Pakistan would also take up arms, sowing instability in a nuclear power in ways the world has never seen. Pakistan's hostile neighbor, nuclear-armed India, could not stand idle in the face of such a threat.

In short, a successful assault on Kabul by the Northern Alliance could drive all Pashtuns back into the arms of the Taliban, turning against the US tens of millions of people on whose good will the success of the American campaign depends. Indeed, even the perception that the US is cozying up too closely to the Northern Alliance could have this affect. Only if US forces keep their fingers off the scales and remain above the intra-Afghani fray can America and its allies hope to play a decisive role in the final political resolution in that country.

Does this mean that the US should avoid contact with the Northern Alliance? Not at all. The Northern Alliance has an important role to play, along with other groups throughout Afghanistan. More to the point, it is vital that every ethnic group from which the Northern Alliance gains strength be fairly represented in any future Afghan government. Fortunately, both US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are aware of these realities. The challenge now is to make certain that general principles continue to guide operations at both the military and diplomatic levels, which will not be easy.

S. Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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